I am prone to random fits of curiosity. And when curiosity strikes, I often turn to books for the answer.
Two years ago I became curious about men’s leather dress shoes. Where do they come from? How are they made? I wanted to know, so I ordered Handmade Shoes for Men by László Vass and Magda Molnár, the most relevant book I could find on Amazon.
A 200-page book on shoemaking — covering in detail the anatomy of the foot, the phases of walking, and the parts of the cowhide best suited for the different components of the shoe — sounds dusty and soporific, exactly the thing to put your curiosity to bed. But the truth is, the book was fascinating and I became hooked immediately. I remember hurrying home from work so I could read more. I even started writing a novel about a cobbler but gave up after 15,000 words. Seriously.
Handmade Shoes for Men shines because the authors’ passion is evident and sincere. It proves that any book can engage and inspire a reader, no matter how random the topic may be.
I bring this up because the focus of this review is another 200-page book about a random topic. (You might say it… came out of left field?) The book is If These Walls Could Talk: San Francisco Giants by Chris Haft. I don’t care about baseball, and I don’t care about the Giants, and I am therefore definitely not whom the author had in mind when writing this book.
IIf These Walls Could Talk: San Francisco Giants is your dad in book version — if your dad were as knowledgable about sports as he pretended to be. Haft is an expert. He’s been the Giants beat writer for the Mercury News and MLB.com for the past decade, and he’s been obsessed with baseball for much longer — 47 years by his count. If These Walls Could Talk: San Francisco Giants, Haft’s first solo book, is a compilation of memorable experiences he’s had and interviews he’s conducted during his tenure.
When it comes to sports-writing, Haft is as all-access as you can get. His book features over a hundred quotes from players, coaches, and managers, most of which come from his own interviews. Despite Haft’s special position, there’s not a trace of ego in his writing. He starts the book with stories from his childhood and it’s that childlike wonderment — not an air of privilege — that defines the tone. In the introduction, he recalls listening to a Giants game on his radio back in 1969:
I kept getting what sounded like static. Soon I heard a voice that I’d come to know better than my own […] saying, “I don’t think that’s Alston.” I came to realize that the static was crowd noise and the man who wasn’t Dodgers manager Walter Alston was their pitching coach, Red Adams, making a trip to the mound.
People who dislike baseball typically disparage it as being too slow. My feeling as I glued my radio to my ear was, Are you kidding? The crowd was that jacked up when nothing was happening?! This is for me!
Haft employs these anecdotes well, often using them as hooks to start chapters. The book, after all, is more a history of Haft’s experience covering the Giants than it is a history of the Giants franchise itself. Refreshingly, he does not overdo it with the first-person. He is enamored with his team, not with himself. When Haft does write himself into the story, he does so with humility, as in this anecdote in the chapter on Juan Marichal:
Wherever Juan Marichal had gone, it wasn’t August 15, 2015. That was the date of an interview I was granted with the legendary right-hander in a press-box office at AT&T Park.
He goes on to explain what happened when he gave Marichal “a scrapbook I kept from 1969 through the early ‘70s featuring newspaper clippings of his best games from that portion of his career”:
I assumed that Marichal would briskly flip through my ragged batch of faded clips and bid me a courteous farewell. I couldn’t have been more wrong. […] He studied each of my entries as if he were a scholar inspecting the Dead Sea Scrolls. He turned every sheet slowly, even tenderly, like a museum curator inspecting a prized acquisition.
Haft makes clear how lucky he is to spend time with players like Marichal without a hint of braggadocio. Moments like this reveal that Haft is the same kid who listened to his radio in disbelief. “I get paid to spend time with Juan Marichal,” one can imagine him saying now. “Are you kidding?”
Haft’s emotionality occasionally hinders his writing. With each flowery simile, Haft risks rendering his experiences as cheesy. He also loves to dramatize, something he’s no doubt picked up from the sport’s broadcasters to whom he has dedicated a whole chapter. One of the quotes he uses in his Juan Marichal chapter comes from Steve Stone, a television broadcaster for the White Sox. “He was like nobody else,” said Stone of Marichal, a nice but meaningless comparison. Quotes like these can be significant but only in scarcity. A reader can hear only so many superlatives until they lose their meaning.
However, it is exactly this emotionality that makes Haft’s book an enjoyable read, not only for the Giants faithful, but for someone as uninitiated as me. Haft uses his access in exactly the right way: to help us appreciate the great moments in Giants history through his own personal experiences. Whether you’re a diehard fan or simply curious like I was, If These Walls Could Talk: San Francisco Giants is sure to educate and delight.